I love to read and write. I do both every day.
But school didn't instill such passions in me. In fact, I hated reading and writing in school; I only fell in love with both long after I'd graduated college. Sadly, I'm not unique, as many of my friends are only now rediscovering the love of learning and various passions that should've been cultivated and fostered in school. We only remember struggling through seemingly worthless essay assignments and blundering through Shakespeare, simply because it was in the curriculum and teachers had been using the same lesson plan since FDR.
Now, I'm not saying essays and Shakespeare are worthless; I'm merely implying that how we learn, and how we "liberate the genius within," as speaker and educator Angela Maiers calls it, doesn't really jive with the current school structure. And worse, that structure is producing legions of disinterested, un-ambitious individuals, which have a direct and immediate impact on the workforce. The result? A nationwide epidemic Maiers is trying to combat with her #YouMatter initiative.
Now, we turn to the author of "The Passion-Driven Classroom" and "Classroom Habitudes" to learn more about...well, why we aren't learning in school, and why those who are supposed to be dreaming big and blazing new trails are, unfortunately, doing no such thing.
GaG: A common theme for you is reinforcing the fact that “you matter.” Why has this been a focal point for you over the years?
Angela: “I started my career 28 years ago as a kindergarten teacher and here’s what’s so amazing about 5-year-olds: Nothing can really be accomplished until you notice them, validate them, and tell them you’re in the presence of genius. I’ve spent a lot of time with young children and they actually believe it’s their birthright to make a splash in the world. They’re not doing anything out of ego or arrogance; they believe someone else really wants something they have. It’s why they’ll walk right up to you in the grocery store and tell you about their toy dinosaur.
Then I started to recognize this massive gap, the gap nobody talks about, what I call the “mattering gap.” All of a sudden, you stop believing you actually matter, that you have something someone else might need.
You start doubting yourself and you start hiding and you forget the most important thing, which is that you’re unique and amazing.
The ‘mattering’ epidemic is a problem for people of all ages, too. I had a chance to do that TED talk and you have 17 minutes to tell people how you’ll change the world. And what I found is that one minute, the people at that talk are inspired and suddenly, in the next moment, they’re depressed. They think, ‘Well, I can’t do that, I’m just a housewife’ or, ‘I’m just a college student’ or, ‘I’m just a secretary.’ They start putting the word 'just' in front of their names and they don’t realize that they’re built for success. And that’s why we don’t make the impact we can, individually and collectively.”
GaG: We see many individuals who lack confidence and drive. Have you found that young people, perhaps especially teens and young adults, have difficulty with the You Matter concept?
Angela: “The most important element of ‘You Matter’ is this— too many people think ‘mattering’ is just some warm, fuzzy idea that makes you feel better about yourself. I’m not saying it to make people feel better. I’m saying it because it’s essential to our health and to our ability to be functioning and ultimately productive.
Mattering is an essential daily need.
When any other vital need is not met, like air or food or water, we have to fix that and this is the same thing. You have a daily choice how to treat your mind, body and soul; worthiness is a discipline, it’s not a strategy or a technique. You can’t learn and thrive from a place of unworthiness.
That’s the difference between this and the self-esteem movement; this is about your place in the world, and the fact that the world would not be as great a place without you.”
GaG: You say there’s a similar need among both kids and grownups to feel wanted, to feel as if they matter. Could you explain that further?
Angela: “I think the difference between kids and grownups is that if you don’t pay attention to a 5-year-old, they’ll let you know. But as adults, we don’t wear signs around our necks that say, ‘please just smile at me today.’ We’re not vocal. People can’t wrap their heads around this emotionally and it’s a big problem.
I’ve been doing some research in this area and beyond the emotional, the economics of this is absolutely massive. Any loss of an essential need on a mass scale is a big problem, whether we don’t have clean water or safety or shelter. When we see such a problem, we tackle it on a national level and that’s what we need to do with the science of ‘mattering.’ There’s a reason why there’s a suicide epidemic in our schools and why 87% of the American workforce is unhappy; openly disengaged, disgruntled, etc. The Times called them the ‘working dead.’ And if you analyze the numbers and understand what it actually costs the taxpayers, you start to understand how serious an issue it really is.
We asked kids one question: ‘What would make you run to school?’ They didn’t say ‘give me more recess’ or ‘we want more computers;’ they said things like ‘smile at me,’ ‘notice me,’ ‘say my name,’ etc. These were at the top of the list. And you know what? When we asked basically the same question of adults – ‘What would make you run to work in the morning?’ – the answers were almost identical. They want to be recognized, noticed, appreciated. ‘Believe in me, see my value.’ These are fundamental needs.”
GaG: When you speak of “liberating genius,” you talk about the “addiction of security and acceptance of mediocrity and rekindling the genius within.” Can you elaborate?
Angela: That’s the very foundation of the movement; it’s the framework we use for systemic change. It’s not enough right now because it’s such a pandemic, so this has to be a full-fledged revolution. I have a background in neuroscience and I know we’re wired to be risk-adverse; it’s in our DNA to seek security. We have to be uncomfortable if we want to succeed; we have very few courageous leaders today because it’s freaking uncomfortable and nobody wants that. But it’s the risk you have to take or else you fail.
You might notice that kids are totally fearless. Then, though, we put them in this environment where we ask them to follow every direction and jump through every hoop, and then we wonder why we’re graduating robots. Courage is a muscle and if you haven’t used it in 12-15 years, you’re going to stop functioning and pushing forward. You stop asking questions and you stop dreaming and you stop thinking big. In the end, you stop really existing.
Unfortunately, in schools today, it’s not about what’s best; it’s about what’s easy. That’s the pervasive mindset and it has to go.
In fact, the pervading mindset in all of society is acceptance of mediocrity and our entire school system is built on ‘average’ because we believe genius is the anomaly. Schools are built on the system that ensures that average is all we’ll ever get. But genius is our birthright and school denies us that rather than fuels it. That’s what we fight with ‘liberating genius.’
GaG: You often refer to a passion gap in the world of learning. Why do you believe so many of us have lost the passion to learn? Is it because schools simply aren’t instilling that passion in students, or is it more of a societal issue?
Angela: “One of the biggest problems is that we always say things like, ‘we have to motivate kids and employees’ but when you understand a specific set of conditions, you don’t have to motivate at all. It’s not really about motivation because if the environment breeds genius, success is imminent. We’re not emphasizing and cultivating environments for learning. If I throw a bunch of seeds out into the garden, some things will grow, but if we don’t understand that complex environment, it just won’t work as well. How do we create environments that ensure success, environments where genius can thrive?
If you can find a way to create this sort of atmosphere, there’s no limit to what human beings can do.”
GaG: Have you noticed that people seem more uncertain and unsure of themselves, and generally more timid when it comes to tackling life goals?
Angela: “Yes, absolutely. We start out dreaming, with these incredible imaginations, believing we can do and become anything. We’re surrounded by well-meaning parents and teachers but society still says genius is the anomaly, and that’s what has to change. And we’re starting to see some of that change; some of the most progressive companies in the world, like Google and FedEx, places where we see great innovation, they’ve embraced the idea. They give their employees time to pursue their passions every week; they can pursue that passion provided it has a bigger purpose. It’s called the ’20 percent project’ (where you get 20 percent of your time at work to go after your passion) and it has given employees trust and belief, and the opportunity to explore their genius. And that genius can be used for the betterment of the world.
You have a responsibility to ask bold questions, to challenge the status quo, to solve problems everyone says is impossible.
One of the things we’ve done is to ask kids to approach people with five of their biggest dreams, and if those people laugh at all five dreams, those are dreams worth pursuing. And if we give them one hour a week to do that; just get out of their way and believe in them, that ‘genius hour’ will change the world. It will produce citizens who do that as a regular operating procedure.”
GaG: What is the primary underlying message of ‘mattering,’ in your mind?
Angela: “One of my favorite quotes comes from Steve Jobs: ‘The moment you recognize you’re not any less smart or gifted than anyone else in the world, everything in your world changes.’
When you know you matter as much as everyone else, that’s when everything gets better. If you look at the hierarchy of mattering, it goes like this: The first step is to be noticed, just to be seen, that essential need, even if this doesn’t drive you to action by itself. The second tier is understanding what your value and worth really is, and understanding HOW others need you. The third tier, the deepest level, is the deepest motivator for any human being and that’s being essential to another. To be needed is the key driver for all of us.”
For more on Angela, feel free to follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and check out her blog. Many thanks to her for speaking with us, and I will add that we're seeing the power of "mattering" in many of our recent interviews. Cheyenne Bostock said multiple times during the course of our conversation that everything changed for him when he realized that he had value, Stephan LaBossiere is a big proponent of confidence and self-growth, and if there's one girl who understand the need to feel some personal value, it's Mia Rose.
The answer is clear, is it not? ;)